In a letter to the Israeli Prime Minister last week, the President of the Middle East Studies Association warned that Israel’s policy of increasingly restrcting Palestinian universities’ access to international staff ‘severely imperils the quality of Palestinian education and the right to education of Palestinian students’. The international body representing 2,500 international scholars of the region condemned the ‘wide range of arbitrary demands and conditions’ imposed on Palestinian universities hiring foreign nationals, which has resulted in a “sharp decrease in the number of international academics at Palestinian universities” and served to “isolate the Palestinian community from the rest of the world”.
Since 1967, Israel has retained full control of all exit and entry to and from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian universities and their international staff have been placed at the mercy of an opaque and arbitrary visa system, which routinely denies entry to international academics and students. The result has been to create a situation of permanent vulnerability and frequent disruption to teaching and other university functions, and to isolate Palestinian higher education internationally. Many visa applicants are Palestinian but do not carry Palestinian Authority ID cards while others enjoy family ties in the occupied Palestinian territories. In Gaza, the siege has entirely prevented access to universities by international and Palestinian academics from outside the Strip.
Last month Birzeit University announced that seven out of a cohort of 22 international faculty had been denied visa renewals. Most had served in various levels of the university administration for years, one American professor having taught in Palestine for the best part of four decades. The suspension of visas in July brought the number of faculty members at Birzeit who had had visas denied or severely delayed to 15.
In a statement the university warned,
‘These international professors play a critical role not only in the ongoing provision of quality education at Birzeit University but also in the long-term development of Palestinian higher education. If this policy continues, Palestinian universities, including Birzeit University, will be further isolated from the global academic environment.’
According to the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Education, more than half of the foreign faculty working at Palestinian universities over the past two years have faced visa refusals or delays. In a press conference addressing the issue, Minister of Education Sabri Saidam condemned these ‘unjust policies’ as ‘undermining the quality of education and research programs at our universities.’
Israel’s policies towards Palestinian education breach the principle of the right to education enshrined in international human rights law and its obligations as the occupying power to ensure the functioning of civil institutions, including universities. Third party states such as the UK have duties to act in order to obtain Israel’s compliance. The UK government has consistently refused to take action to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law and has obstructed international efforts to do so.